Previous month:
March 2008
Next month:
May 2008

Small Group Dynamics. Small is better because factions can not survive? Nope.

There are some interesting assumptions in this theory of the "inefficiency coefficient." I think physicswold has it wrong (how often do we get to say that?)

Stefan Turner says that inefficiency goes up when there are enough people to support independent coalitions and factions. That seems to make sense, but it should be universal across government, private sector, and public interest sectors.

However, as the barriers to coordination go down, it would seem that smaller coalitions and factions will be able to sustain themselves with less energy (need less people to maintain a viable faction then in 1933). We have actually observed increased fragmentation and increased inefficiency which is the opposite of what the big theory and conclusion would suggest.

This methodology doesn't make sense to me. There are other things at play. It is as if the indicators for success and the political systems that demand large cabinetes (include more people because the culture is deeply fragmented) are conflicting rather than any proof in the magic of the 20 people to a group. It may be something even more fundamental to human nature people are less willing to question authority in bigger groups? People less will to challenge leadership in larger group settings? Leaders less willing to throw open questions and reverse thier opinions in larger groups?

Less perfect information would lead to worse decisions not group size. Close the doors on opinions and limiting the seats of power as a way to make better government choices would only make sense to physics and math guy.

The real challenge then is to look for the ways to scale small group dynamic. To access the wisdom of the crowd and scale effective coordination using better communicaiton skills and technology.

Or you could tell the EU to limit committee size... Are they actually buying that?

Physicists quantify the 'coefficient of inefficiency' - physicsworld.com

Parkinson, who died in 1993, discovered a strong correlation between a committee’s ability to make a good decision, and its size. In particular, Parkinson found that committees with more than about 20 members are much more ineffectual at making decisions than smaller groups — something he dubbed the “coefficient of inefficiency”.

While many organizations are aware of the 20 person rule, Thurner and colleagues had not been able to find any reference to a mathematical explanation of the coefficient. So they set out to first empirically verify Parkinson’s law and then develop a mathematical model to describe


Online Fossett Searchers: Giant Suck of Energy

Here is an update to the Fossett story. 50,000 searchers. Lots of false leads given to the Civil Air Patrol.

1. "Leads" Should have needed multiple blind confirmations. (Labor is free make redundancy your test on eliminating false leads.)
2. The user interface didn't work.
3. Poor images made the task very difficult.
4. Didn't leverage the network to sort and prioritize the volunteers.
5. Didn't realize the complexity of working with volunteers vs. Turks getting paid.

Link: Online Fossett Searchers Ask, Was It Worth It?.

Looking back, Diana Francis says she should have known it would be a big waste of time. She sat for hours each day in her husband's home office in Houston scouring little digital snapshots of the Nevada desert on Amazon.com, in hopes that she'd help locate vanished millionaire aviator Steve Fossett.

Finally, though, she decided the exercise was tedious and unproductive.

"It was so exciting and new when we started it and it seemed like it could really help them, but eventually it was disheartening, and I realized I had no idea what I was actually looking for," says Francis, who participated for a couple of weeks while her kids were at school. "You know the saying, 'a needle in a haystack'? Well, this literally was like looking for a needle in a haystack the size of a small European country."

She's not the only one now expressing doubts about Amazon's Mechanical Turk, a high-tech aspect of the Fossett search that received such vast media hype that Mechanical Turk's director, Peter Cohen, won't do interviews about it any more. The online retail giant took the most up-to-date satellite images of the 17,000-square-mile search area, broke it into smaller chunks, and had more than 50,000 volunteers look at randomly distributed segments. In Mechanical Turk parlance, each segment was a small job, known as a Human Intelligence Task or HIT, which required the assigned volunteer to flag anything thought to be out of the ordinary.

Fosset disappeared Sept. 3 during what was planned as a brief jaunt from a ranch 90 miles southeast of Reno, Nevada. The massive online effort didn't lead to the discovery of Fossett or the single-engine Citabria Super Decathalon he was flying. But neither did the dozens of planes and hundreds of ground searchers who made up the biggest search for a missing aircraft in U.S. history. To date, it remains a mystery what happened to Fossett.

Amazon closed the search last week, almost a month after the official on-site search ceased. Now that it's over, Amazon spokeswoman Kay Kinton says the company has learned much, and she gives the system high marks for its ability to update and adapt as the situation changed.

Still, many of those who participated have mixed feelings about their experiences. Francis, who says she's "not that much of a geek," regrets taking part, but many who are more knowledgeable about the technology say it was a worthwhile exercise that should help Amazon refine its methods in the future.

"There was always the hope that people with good eyes would hit the right image, but it's also a learning experience," says Ken Barbalace of Portland, Maine, who runs the website EnvironmentalChemistry.com and who looked at 25,000 HITs. "We can't figure out how to make it a valuable tool until you work on it and change things."

The most important change Amazon needs to make for the future, Barbalace says, is that the interface ought to offer a way for searchers to toggle between the image they're given and an image of the same section prior to the date of the search target's disappearance. That would have helped volunteers know whether the things they were spotting were new.

Instead, some volunteers took the GPS coordinates from the squares they were issued and fed them into Google Earth for older images, slowing down their progress. And in the last couple of weeks when Mechanical Turk started using higher-resolution images, the GPS coordinates were no longer listed with the images, which made matching the photos even more of a challenge.

Some volunteers believed that information was withheld because Amazon began to worry that helpers would try to actually go to the sites themselves to search. But Kinton says it's because the source at that point changed from satellite imagery to images taken from aircraft, which didn't have GPS coordinates attached.

Another intense Turker, Andy Chantrill of Castle Donington, England, says he wishes Amazon had provided the searchers with more information about the overall effort. The 25-year-old software designer says he put in 85 hours poring over 20,000 HITs. Since each square was reviewed by up to 10 people, he says he'd like to know how many others had flagged ones he looked at.

"The value of the contribution is hard to quantify because ultimately we failed to find Steve, but it seems reasonable to imagine that this could work," Chantrill says. "I don't see any downsides to it, so long as people don't pester the professional search-and-rescue teams with poor leads."

Yet that is exactly what happened, much to the exasperation of Civil Air Patrol Maj. Cynthia Ryan, who says her e-mail and voicemail boxes were flooded with leads from folks working on the Mechanical Turk. Many times, they mistook search aircraft in the air for Fossett's plane -- even though it's unlikely Fossett's plane would have appeared intact.

"The crowdsourcing thing added a level of complexity that we didn't need, because 99.9999 percent of the people who were doing it didn't have the faintest idea what they're looking for," Ryan says.

"In the early days, it sounded like a good idea," Ryan continues. "In hindsight, I wish it hadn't been there, because it didn't produce a darn thing that was productive except for being a giant black hole for energy, time and resources. There may come a day when this technology is capable of doing what it says it can deliver, but boy, that's not now."